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By Ty Phillips


As an American Buddhist teacher, I often struggle to find that balance of staying true to the tradition and history of Buddhism, while also making it applicable for a modern culture.

After years of study, one thing I have come to feel strongly about is the relative absence of non-monastic teaching. Because the sutras were largely compiled by the monastic community, the majority of what we know about Buddhism and the Buddha’s teaching revolve around the monastic tradition.

Where does this leave the foundational teaching of the Noble Eight Fold Path with its emphasis on right livelihood? Or the teachings from the Numerical Sutras that delve into the life of non-monastics? I would venture to say that a vast majority of practitioners—and even teachers—aren’t aware of these issues or haven’t even given them much thought or credence.

The Buddha started his path of teaching by offering the core of what would be a 45 year  career—the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

For many of us, we are familiar with these concepts but don’t pay much attention to them. We quickly rush on to more esoteric sounding teachings and traditions, and remain unsatisfied because the truth of the core foundations has not made its true impact in our lives.

Today, I want to focus on the issue of right livelihood. Remember, this is a foundational part of the Buddha’s original instruction. Monasticism is not a livelihood, so the implications of this teaching must be more far reaching. Livelihood is part of what we as members of society engage in to support ourselves—to help with family, past times or even for periods of simple enjoyment.

So why mention this if it was not central to the Buddha and his teachings?

I think we often forget that he was a social reformer. This part of his life is often overlooked in a hyper-focused attempt to drive everything back to the meditation cushion. In doing so, I think we miss that the Buddha was striving to create a reformed culture and society.

In order to make liberation open to everyone, the problems within our societies need to be addressed first.

Livelihood is a reality we all have to face; it was in the Buddha’s time just as much as it is so now. Our societies often drive what we are able to do for that livelihood. By embracing the notion of right livelihood, we can begin to focus again on the jobs that are often sought, the careers and companies that thrive and what will help society as a whole to strive for and pursue a noble life.

So what is right livelihood? What characterizes what a Buddhist should find as enjoyable, profitable, and spiritually healthy work?

The obvious is clear—nothing that promotes war and violence (weapons trade and manufacturing) and nothing that promotes the sex and substance abuse trade (prostitution and the manufacturing of controlled substances). I think there is much more to this though.

We all need jobs; in our culture, living without is almost impossible. We are largely unable to walk the streets of America with a begging bowl offering Dharma teachings for sustenance, and we are definitely unwelcome to set up home in parks and yards. A quick look at how the homeless are treated in our culture should make this abundantly clear.

So again, what is right livelihood? What occupations should we be engaging in that will be a benefit to us and our communities, both great and small? Right livelihood should first and foremost be able to give back to our communities. If our work is solely for economic impact, and is devoid or even neutral on an overall positive effect on the world we live in, then it is not right livelihood.

It should be self sustainable.

We should take into consideration the end result. Is it polluting, corrupting, destroying cultures or much needed forests? Is it benefiting all that it encounters? Often we find ourselves unable to answer all of these questions. Corporations become so large we have little if any knowledge of their overall reach and impact in the world.

So start small with things such as mom and pop shops, co-created Dharma community projects or maybe even bartering amongst our communities. If we truly wish to engage in a mindful lifestyle, we need to take into consideration our wants vs our needs. We may need to downsize and even recreate—from scratch if needed—the life we should truly be living.

This may seem like a high bar to reach, but what we truly value, we almost always pursue.

When we are willing to value right livelihood as a priority, other people will follow our example and ideas will spread. Buddhism was social reform just as much as it was spiritual and emotional reform.

We can do it again.


Photo: (source)

Editor: Dana Gornall